On Tues., Jan. 21, 2014, Jenny Q Chai returns to New York City’s (le) Poisson Rouge with If on a Winter’s Night…, a musical journey through the landscape of Western Music, in which she performs works by array of composers with whom she feels a vibrant kinship. The featured selections, by Bach, Debussy, Gibbons, Schumann, Stockhausen, and Stroppa, are interleaved with miniatures from Kurtág’s playful Játékok (Games), in a structural gesture inspired by Italo Calvino’s intricately raveled novel examining the nature of reality and fiction, If on a winter’s night a traveler.
Jenny explains: “I imagine this concert as a kind of train journey through Western Music, in which Kurtág’s beautiful music brings me to meet with each of these composers, speaking to them in their own musical language and engaging with them as the authentic innovators they were. As I laid out the order of the works, seeking to demonstrate the connections and common language I sense within them, I was inspired by Calvino’s gorgeous novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler, which in turn was inspiration for Marco Stroppa’s Miniature Estrose(from which Ninnananna is taken).
“The Kurtág ‘train’ of selections from his delightful Játékok references my own personal musical education; many of these works were given to me by my dear teacher, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and represent my own discovery of this phenomenal composer and his rich, important body of repertoire.”
And, if you can’t make it in person, you can Live Stream the concert here (beginning at 7:30pm, Jan. 21.)
Jenny recently authored a post for the Ariel Artists blog; we offer it to you here:
While the U.S. and Europe have gone through a century of contemporary music, it is only the very beginning for China when it comes to Western contemporary classical music. Perhaps this is because such music is not China’s own culture, or perhaps the Chinese are still too enthusiastic about the Romantic period (even Debussy and Ravel are not often played in China). The only contemporary person recognized by Chinese audiences is Tan Dun, but more for his Crouching Tiger score. About his more experimental writing, he was often attacked by hostile conservatives, even on broadcast TV shows. So, it makes the prospect of someone like me, a Chinese-American contemporary pianist, performing contemporary music in China quite interesting.
Being the first one to bring prepared piano to China in 2006, I had the honor of watching the news of prepared piano soon take over Chinese press that summer. That reaction was unexpected, because prepared piano was nothing new to me. Meanwhile the media used the phrase “prepared piano arriving in China for the first time” in headlines everywhere. The piece was called Mallet Dance for two prepared pianos, by John Slover, commissioned by me and Piotr Tomasz.
During that performance, audiences exclaimed during each new sound with joy. They especially gasped when Piotr put small wooden balls onto the strings of the piano, the balls bounced up and down when Piotr continued to play. [ed. note: watch a live video of their performance]
It was a joyful time, sharing something so American to over 1,300 Chinese concert-goers. The concept was to imitate traditional Chinese instruments, especially those played at an ancient Chinese wedding. I think that’s a big factor in why Chinese audiences were able to relate to the sounds.
After that summer, I went back to the States to continue my studies. At the time, I didn’t imagine that I would be the one to bring contemporary music to China. For that time was before my conscious realization of my deep connection to and enthusiasm for new music. Not until 2011 when I relocated back to Shanghai after devoting myself to new music for the last 7 years, did it become clear to me that I would be promoting new music in China.
After being offered a contract to perform at the Shanghai Concert Hall, I proposed a concert program including the Debussy Etudes interspersed with contemporary pieces. My program proposal was heavily contemplated by the presenter, who then backed out of the contract, stating that they couldn’t get it approved by the government in time.
Losing hope in big official venues, I opened FaceArt Music InterNations with my fiancé Piotr Tomasz, wanting to make FaceArt an edgy performance space somewhat like (le) poisson rouge. We did about three creative programs, all with fewer than 10 people showing up every time. In the end, only the education part of FaceArt took off and was able to support the operational costs of FaceArt. I started mixing contemporary works by such composers as Cage, Kurtág, and Messiaen into my teaching, and still performed contemporary music once in a while at FaceArt. In addition, I invited pianists and composers from the U.S. to perform new music and conduct workshops for a group of our own audience members, mainly made up of students and their parents. They received our guest artists better and better after each educational event, and began to pride themselves on being the students of a contemporary pianist.
It wasn’t until last year, when I received an invitation to perform an all-contemporary solo concert at the “Carnegie of China,” the National Performing Arts Center, that I started to see some change in the attitude of people towards new music. Then the most authoritative classical magazine, Piano Art, published a lengthy 14-page interview with me, in which I discussed contemporary music and especially Cage, an American who uses Chinese philosophy like the I-Ching, and how ridiculous it is that Chinese people don’t even know when someone outside of China is utilizing Chinese philosophy for music.
I gave a lecture on Cage to 300 middle school Chinese students, and that’s another story.
To be brief, there are many interesting aspects I am starting to see in the Chinese reaction towards new music. The majority of people often have quite a lot of curiosity about new music. A group of conservative and political musicians are very much against it. Top university non-music major students adore it.
Social media plays some part in it. As I started posting more and more tweets on Chinese Twitter (called Weibo) about composers such as Cage, Carter, and Ligeti, there were up to a hundred re-tweets. But recently, someone (I’m guessing a composer) on Weibo started a discussion and expressed his own honest feelings about how he thinks Cage’s music has no value, it’s all about gimmicks and anyone can do it. I got excited and wrote back quite a few responses about what I think is the actual value in Cage, his philosophy that sound is music, and his use of theI-Ching and chance music. I encouraged further discussion, but received no further response. I guess the person felt intimidated.
Actually, there has been a huge resistance to Cage in China. There was a very interesting live talk show on CCTV, where the host invited Tan Dun and a very old-fashioned conductor who used to be very famous for conducting communistic music. From the beginning of the show, this conductor started trashing Tan Dun’s and Cage’s music ruthlessly, saying anyone who makes some water can call it “Water Music,” but it’s no music. But now that he is a celebrated international composer, somehow he thinks he is justified to do anything. He also complained about how Cage puts stinky fish into the piano, etc. Tan Dun was quiet for a long time when this conductor went on and on with his opinion, then finally, when the host asked Tan Dun for his response, he said: “I didn’t know you would invite him, otherwise I wouldn’t have come. I have nothing to say to such a person with such taste and level.” And he stood up and walked out of the broadcasting room. The live audience waited anxiously for Tan Dun’s return for 45 minutes, but he didn’t come back. After that, the host interviewed the audience, and it turned out there were really sophisticated people in the audience. There were an American music critic, a few Chinese-Americans, a Spanish student, and they started having a heated debate with this conductor, accusing him of being close-minded. I remember one woman from Hong Kong asking the conductor if he’d ever actually heard Cage’s music, and his answer was no, but that he had heard people talking about how Cage’s music was made, and that put him off already. That answer made him seem extremely ignorant and stupid in that setting in front of such a sophisticated audience. I can’t help but wonder, was this conductor set up? Why did they purposely find such sophisticated audience members?
Just two weeks ago on September 13th, I gave the season opening concert for the Shanghai Symphony, performing the wildest/experimental music ever written for piano, which included playing with baseballs and a baseball mitt, singing, tapping, and more. I originally also wanted to perform Cage’s Water Walk. But since it requires a big collection of household items such as a vase, flowers, mixer, pressure cooker, a bottle of Campari, ice, rubber duck, etc. (and the biggest item being a bathtub), the presenter couldn’t let me do it this time.
It turns out on that day, there was a crazy storm. The subway collapsed, and there were 4-hour-long traffic jams. Many people said they never saw Shanghai like this before. People were saying it was like The Day after Tomorrow. Yet the concert had a full house which overflowed to standing room only in the second half. To hear all the various ways people made it to the concert was very touching. Some walked in the huge storm for one hour, some got stuck in traffic for 4 hours. Some even came without any tickets, because the concert was sold out a month ago.
Media people also rushed in, even in that kind of weather. The five biggest newspapers reviewed the concert, all focusing on how new music is so well-presented and so new to Shanghai, but that it’s not against the ears. And they wrote about me playing with an iPad instead of printed scores, and told people what new music is about, and that it comes from the older period of Classical Music as its heritage. China’s biggest NPR station came right before the concert and did an interview with me. They asked me about new music, as well as about the educational flaws of the current Chinese music students, on which I have quite a lot of opinions, having dealt with many problematic cases. One of the biggest TV stations, DragonTV, also announced my concert in the morning before the concert.
I am quite surprised by all these positive reactions, especially the media reaction. People were telling me that people in Shanghai are a lot better at accepting new things and especially international trends than, for example, people from Beijing or elsewhere. Well, looking at Shanghai’s history and current stage, it is for sure the most international city in China. I hope I’ll be able to play more new music concerts in China and make a difference.
On September 13, at the Shanghai Concert Hall (home of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra), pianist Jenny Q Chai will perform a solo recital and lecture entitled “Infinity of Piano Music.” Compiling some of “the wildest piano music in history,” and pairing them with selections from the standard repertoire, Chai’s program will boil tradition in a pressure cooker and catch the spillover with a baseball mitt.
Standard repertoire pieces will include Debussy’s Preludes, Ravel’s Une Barque Sur L’océan from Miroirs, and a selection of Scarlatti sonatas. Non-traditional pieces include Kurtag’s Quiet talk with the Devil, Marcos Stroppa’s Ninnananna, and a complete staging of John Cage’s rarely performed Water Walk.
The concert/lecture begins at 7:30 p.m. Complete program information is below.
“INFINITY OF PIANO MUSIC” COMPLETE PROGRAM:
Prelude: Le vent dans la plaine
Prelusde: La cathédrale engloutie
Quiet talk with the Devil
Hommage à Scarlatti
The Italian Ground (1613)
Ninnananna from Miniature Estrose
Three Irish Legends
“Brooklyn, October 5, 1941″ For piano. baseballs and baseball mit
Une Barque Sur L’océan from Miroirs
The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs/Nowth Upon Nacht
- Artist: Jenny Chai
- Date: 09/13/13
- Time: 7:30pm
- Venue: Shanghai Concert Hall
- City: Shanghai
- Country: China
- Notes: The Infinity of Piano Music: this program explores the wildest piano music in the history, mixed with standard Classical piano repertoires. Includes works by Debussy, Kurtag, Scarlatti, Gibbons, Marco Stroppa, Estrose, Henry Cowell, Annie Gosfiel, Ravel, John Cage.
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Review of Jenny’s May 7 Performance at Spectrum
by George Grella
Full review available here.
… Chai is known for her playing and her programs that demolish distinctions between past and present and show that the Western classical tradition is an endless flow, no part of it beyond the reach of any composer or the ears of any listener. The program was called Acqua Alta, the music having in some way to do with water.
She’s not the only musician who does this — most prominently in my mind is Marino Formenti— but she does so without didacticism, which is unusual and compelling. She plays the music with great skill, intelligence and commitment, but she doesn’t belabor her points or our need to hear what she hears, and as a critical listener I have utmost respect for that. …
The opening suite sandwiched Kurtag’s “Hommage à Scarlatti,” a couple Scarlatti Sonatas, and Gibbons’ “The Italian Ground” with premieres from Milica Paranosic and Nils Vigeland. Scarlatti’s are some of the finest keyboard works in the literature, and Chai played them with accuracy and insouciance, an ideal combination. …
While even the most sensitive, intelligent listener has to navigate their way through how a brand new piece should go, it’s easy to hear exceptional Ravel, Debussy and Liszt. Chai is great in this music: she has the technique to pull it off, the power to play it with expression and confidence, and the intelligence to make it coherent and meaningful. There are few musicians who can play both Scarlatti and Liszt naturally and convincingly — Formenti is one, there’s Mikhail Pletnev — and Chai does it. …
Full review available here.
Shanghai-born Jenny Q. Chai, internationally renowned for her eclectic choices, with partialities for composers who love to compose for her, is hardly “brutal”. When necessary, she plays Ravel and Debussy with a firm technique and excellent phrasing, albeit a sound which was engulfed by the resonating acoustics of Spectrum. (Her “Engulfed Cathedral” actually did sound like it was bubbling up with infinite overtones, from the depths of some fantasy ocean.)
Especially because otherwise Ms. Chai is such an engaging pianist. For the “mainstream” water works, the dimensions of Spectrum may have precluded the mysterious isolation of Ravel’s boat on the ocean, but her technique in this most challenging work was superb. Liszt’s desolate The Gondola in the Funeral (my translation, since Liszt was inspired by a Venetian funeral procession) was given all the mystery which the Ravel lacked. This was Liszt at his most mystical, and the end–actually an infinite pause–was startling.
My favorite works were two pieces which not only deconstructed butpulverized familiar songs. One of György Kurtág’s homages, this to Scarlatti, was anything but Scarlattiana. Yet in the tiny piece, one heard bits and pieces of the hunting sonatas, a few notes which could have come from the Master’s works. It was peeking through a keyhole into a dark with a few unexpected flashes. And Ms. Chai solved the mystery right after with two rarely performed Scarlatti sonatas, played with crisp, brightly colored precision. And that was followed by a Gibbons work where Ms. Chai actually came near to imitating a harpsichord.
But Marco Stroppa had written a lullaby (or anti-lullaby) called “Ninnananna” which I found delicious. Not meant to lull a baby to sleep, Ms. Chai played the moments between waking and sleeping which included physical gyrations, hints of nightmares, very loud chords and, I guess, final sleep.
“Ninnananna” could well have been called “Insomnia”, because nobody could actually relax. Which was the way Jenny Q. Chai arranged her program. The unexpected, the mysterious, unusual, and comic were all part of the show. But the artist herself has such easy expertise that each challenge (and each occasional failure) was joyfully arousing.
I am thrilled to announce that I have just signed on with Ariel Artists – read the exciting announcement here.
When I first talked about management with my teacher Pierre-Laurent Aimard three years ago, he said severely: “many artists were destroyed by management agencies. They think they are God!” Since then, I’ve been a bit cautious, if not against the idea of having management do my bookings.
Several standard management companies have expressed interest in me over the years, but there was always a sense of not knowing who I am or how to book me as a contemporary pianist. I think they were curious to see where the musical world is heading, that is, the increasing interest and awareness in contemporary music in the classical music field. They would like to catch up, but do not quite know how, since most big classical music agencies are still so confined in the age of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
That’s why, when Ariel Artists approached me, THE management company devoted to contemporary and creative programming (their founder Oni Buchaman is a contemporary pianist herself and all the staff are intelligent musicians) I had not even a bit of doubt that this was the ONE for me. With Ariel, I already see that my bold ideas (such as the program Etude Frenzy, programming etudes by Debussy, Ligeti and Cage) were sharpened and completely supported! My lecture-recital format (for example, my doctoral thesis on “Dissecting Stroppa” is also strongly encouraged and is on its way to be presented.
I can’t feel luckier with such a match and am excited about our team work and creative brainstorming altogether.
I can only say: I so very much look forward to my future work together with Ariel Artists. I feel they will be my strong backbone.
This was a shot my mom took in New York City with her iPhone while I was walking out of an Upper West Side flower shop, after getting the flowers needed for Cage’s Water Walk. I was unaware she was taking it, and was very excited for the upcoming performance at Spectrum.
An essay by Jenny Q Chai.
Who are we without names? Are we still who we are without names?
If yes, then why do we need names?
Are names categorizations, or mere symbols of our real selves?
Of course, we need names for identification. Like in a library, the books labeled with numbers then become associated with the numbers. But let’s not forget, the book is about what it is about, with or without the labeling.
What is the title pianist? Is it a person who plays on pianos? Is it a job, a profession? Is it a kind of art form? When thinking about the word pianist, people immediately associate it with Rubinstein, Horowitz, Liszt, Chopin, etc.
If we strip away the title pianist, who are these people?
Why do so many unique people all fit in one position, pianist, with its limitation of association?
Music is about the world, full of symbols, numbers, beauty and passion.
Please, don’t call me a pianist. Please take away the conformity and the preformed ideas. Please do not cage me with the boxes of pianism.
I am simply a performing artist, using piano as my tool.
On Thursday, May 9, Jenny Q Chai will perform an altered version of her program Acqua Alta at Baltimore’s premiere classical/experimental music venue An Die Musik. The program will include Annie Gosfield’s dynamic work Brooklyn, October 5, 2941, which memorializes Mickey Owens’s famous blunder that granted the Yankees victory in the 1941 World Series (and blemished his own epic career from that moment on). Written into the piece is a portion where the pianist plays her instrument with a baseball mitt and glove.
The recital begins at 8:00 pm on May 9, located at An Die Musik, 409 N Charles St, Baltimore, MD. Tickets are $12 for the general public, $10 for full-time students. Contact 410-385-2638 for for more information.
The complete program is as follows:
- Milica Paranosic Bubble World Premiere
- Kurtag Hommage à Scarlatti
- Scarlatti Sonatas
- Gibbons The Italian Ground (1613)
- Marco Stroppa Ninnananna from Miniature Estrose
- Liszt La lugubre gondola
- Debussy Prelude to La cathédrale engloutie
- Ravel Une Barque Sur L’océan from Miroirs
- Nils Vigeland I Turisti World Premiere
- Michael Vincent Waller Acqua Santa World Premiere
- Annie Gosfield Brooklyn, October 5, 1941
- Artist: Jenny Chai
- Date: 05/09/13
- Time: 8:00pm
- Venue: An die musik LIVE
- City: Baltimore , MD
- Country: United States
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- Notes: Program includes: ▪ Milica Paranosic Bubble World Premiere ▪ Kurtag Hommage à Scarlatti ▪ Scarlatti Sonatas ▪ Gibbons The Italian Ground (1613) ▪ Marco Stroppa Ninnananna from Miniature Estrose ▪ Liszt La lugubre gondola ▪ Debussy Prelude to La cathédrale engloutie ▪ Ravel Une Barque Sur L’océan from Miroirs ▪ Nils Vigeland I Turisti World Premiere ▪ Michael Vincent Waller Acqua Santa World Premiere ▪ Annie Gosfield Brooklyn, October 5, 1941
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